Lib Dems energised by sound of Brexit opportunity knocking
UK election: Tim Farron has lots to smile about, with chaos in Labour and plenty of new recruits
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron delivering leaflets in Manchester: “We will use every seat we get and every vote we get in the election to strengthen our hand to make sure we push against a hard Brexit.” Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters
Liberal Democrat activists arriving at the Ministry of Sound nightclub in Southwark for a rally with their leader Tim Farron might have felt disappointed to find themselves corralled into an office lobby for a photo opportunity. But they showed little evidence of it as they stood beaming in formation, holding posters with the slogan “Open, Tolerant and United”.
“All get into your happy Lib Dem smiling positions,” a young man called out as Farron arrived.
The Liberal Democrats and their leader have much to smile about at the start of a campaign that could revive their fortunes just two years after a disastrous election cut their seats at Westminster from 57 to eight. The party lost seats to the Conservatives, Labour and the Scottish National Party (SNP) in 2015. Now the Liberal Democrats are a threat to all three, although Farron will not tell me how many seats would amount to a success.
“Even if I had a figure in my head, you’d be the umpteenth person I was going to disappoint by not giving a figure to. But the fact that I haven’t got a figure in my head should tell you something about how we’re beginning to expand the boundaries of what is possible. At a time when people think that anything in politics should be possible, why shouldn’t the best thing be possible?” he says.
Within three days of last week’s election announcement, the party raised £1.6 million and signed up thousands of new recruits, bringing membership above 100,000. The reason for the Liberal Democrats’ revival is Brexit, and their opposition to it, calling for a final deal with the EU to be put to a referendum.
“We will use every seat we get and every vote we get in the election to strengthen our hand to make sure we push against a hard Brexit, to make sure we fight for our place in the single market and fundamentally to ensure that at the end of this process there is a vote, a referendum on this deal. Because at the moment this deal is going to be cooked up in the 21st century equivalent of smoke-filled rooms and imposed on the British people without their say so. And we believe it’s not the politicians who should decide, it should be the people,” Farron says.
The Liberal Democrats are all but certain to regain seats like Bermondsey and Southwark, held by Simon Hughes from 1983 until he lost it to Labour in 2015, and some in southwest England narrowly lost to the Conservatives. But for the party to make dramatic gains, it must attract more voters like Clare Gerada, a former head of the Royal College of General Practitioners and a lifelong Labour supporter until last year’s EU referendum.
“Labour let me down. They’ve let the people down. They’ve let us all down. The Lib Dems are welcoming, they have credible policies, they’re a fair party and they will bring back the social solidarity that I think we all need. And I think they’ll be a credible opposition,” she says.
“On every opportunity that Jeremy Corbyn has had to hold the government to account, he’s failed. His policies now are ridiculous. A bank holiday – what’s that going to mean? It’ll just increase costs,” she says.
“Jeremy Corbyn, if the country meant anything to him, would resign.”
Farron has ruled out entering coalition with any party or doing any deals to support a government after the election. Gerada, who says she would “no sooner vote Tory than eat grass”, thinks Liberal Democrats should vote tactically, backing Labour candidates rather than risking a seat going to the Conservatives.
For Sara Wells (25) who works in financial services, the election is all about Brexit and Theresa May’s decision to leave the European single market and the customs union. Wells believes a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for internationalism, ties with Europe and a global outlook. She is worried about the potential impact of a hard Brexit on her job and those of her friends but her frustration with the prime minister goes deeper.
“When she said if you consider yourself a citizen of the world you’re a citizen of nowhere, it really hurt me. My family live all across the world. My parents live in Australia. I do consider myself a citizen of the world and that’s enriched me in so many ways. And I think a lot of the British public are on my side of that argument,” she says.